I'm Lucy, and I'd be happy to answer your questions today. I'm sorry to hear that this happened.
If you simply are unable to make it to that particular court date and would like another one, you can either call the plaintiff's lawyer and ask if they'll agree to a continuance (in which case, they might file the request) or you can file a Motion to Continue. Most of the time, the judge will give one continuance if you can't make it, but you would have to explain why you can't be in court that particular day and ask them to reschedule.
You do not have to go to court, Some people choose to skip the court date for a variety of reasons. But if you do that, you will automatically lose and the judge will order you to pay the amount of money they're asking for. So before you do that, be sure that you really owe the amount they're asking for and you do not have a defense. Inability to pay is unfortunately not a defense, but if there's some other reason you haven't paid, you could assert that.
When you go to court, they will have to prove to the judge that you borrowed the money they are asking for and did not repay it, and that it's been within the last 4 years (which is the statute of limitations in California for a contract). Then, once they've established the amount owed, you will get to present your case. If you have any legal reasons you should not have to pay, you can state them. If the amount they're asking for is too much, you can produce evidence that it should be lower. The judge will then enter a judgment. If you really do owe the money, he will probably order you to pay it.
They can use the judgment to garnish up to 25% of your wages, if you are working. If you own your own home, they can put a lien on it, but they cannot take your house unless you have more than $75,000 in equity ($100,000 if you're married). They can also use it to take money in your checking or savings accounts, but NOT retirement accounts.
The other option is to contact them and see if they will agree to settle, if there is any amount of money you'd be willing to pay upfront to make this go away. That can save them the time and expense of going to court, so it's possible that they'll negotiate with you.
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